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Frida

Review Written by: Joe Earp
Film: B-
Video/Audio/Extras: A+/A+/B-

Directed by: Julie Taymor
Written by: Clancy Sigal, Diane Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas
Based on the book by: Hayden Herrera
Produced by: Lindsay Flickinger, Sarah Green, Nancy Hardin, Salma Hayek, Jay Polstein, etc.
Starring: Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Mia Maestro, Geoffrey Rush, Ashley Judd, Antonio Banderas
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Rent it

Julie Taymor. Edward Norton. Rodrigo Prieto. Elliot Goldenthal. Stephen and Timothy Quay. Salma Hayek. And Frida Kahlo.

Everyone listed above is a genius in their respective field of the arts, but of course no name is as respected or as honoured as the last. Frida Kahlo, a woman who conquered so much horror in her life to paint masterpieces the likes of which are unrivalled in any art form, is one of the most influential artists in her field. Her paintings, dark, beautiful, fiery portraits are unlikely to be forgotten in the near future.

But what do Kahlo, a director like Taymor, a handful of actors, an Oscar winning composer and two ingenious animators have in common? The answer is simple. Every one of them has collaborated in some way to put the life story of Kahlo onto the screen in the film Frida. With such talent involved one could assume it would be impossible to go wrong. But, as always, one could assume incorrectly.

Unfortunately enough Frida is an unfocused mess. Such a complex and fascinating life would be hard to put on screen at any rate, but Taymor and her screenwriters Clancy Sigal, Diana Lake, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas refuse to make things easy for themselves. Characters, storylines and situations come and go in a flash as the film desperately tries to fit an entire life onto the screen. The film focuses mainly upon Frida's relationship with Diego Rivera (brilliantly played by Alfred Molina) and it is at its best when it analyses the relationship between two so passionate people. Rivera, a famous painter who also dabbled in Communism, was incredibly unfaithful and indulged in many women behind Frida's back. Although Rivera is heralded as the finest painter of his generation, Frida is a much more capable artist. Unfortunately enough however her work is largely ignored. Nevertheless it is not arguments over paintings or publicity that destroys the couple. Instead, Rivera's constant infidelities tear the two to shreds as Frida rapidly falls to pieces physically.

As complicated as this subplot sounds, it is one of many that Taymor throws at the audience. Unfortunately enough, many of the others aren't quite as successful. Frida's trip to America is boring and pointless; providing no insight into the life of the artist or her husband. Similarly Kahlo's bisexuality and affairs with other women are glossed over and never really explained. Taymor simply tries to convince the audience that they should give up and hurry along at the same pace of the film. She doesn't want us to really think in depth about anything. It seems as though her only aim is to make a film as furious and intense as Kahlo's own life. Even Frida's brief affair with the famous Communist Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush in a particularly unmemorable performance) is glossed over. As if all of this isn't bad enough, the film is terribly structured. Like most poor screenplays the movie starts off with Frida at her deathbed for no real reason at all. Why exactly we are presented with her demise in the very first scene is never actually explained.

Worst of all, the character of Frida herself is not particularly engaging. Although much has been said about Salma Hayek's performance she really has nothing to go on. The fatal flaw the screenwriters make is to give her too many long diatribes. Frida speaks far too much and thinks far too little. This drains a lot of emotion from scenes that could actually be very effective. For example the tragedy that befalls Kahlo's unborn child is not as powerful as it should be. We never see Frida's emotion, mainly because she spends such a long time talking about it. The poor characterization becomes particularly embarrassing when placed next to the insightful quote from the real Kahlo that bookends the film ('I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope never to return').

Similarly we never really see many of Kahlo's paintings. This is a major flaw, as the film never concentrates on Frida's work. Instead plot device after plot device is thrown into the mess, confusing viewers who may not be familiar with Kahlo's paintings. An embarrassing imitation of the artists work that appears at the end of the film is particularly upsetting. Unfortunately, so many actors have signed up for the project that many are unsurprisingly forgotten. Edward Norton is particularly unimpressive in a short, boring role as a two dimensional museum curator and Antonio Banderas only appears for a moment (although this is probably a good thing)

However although the screenplay itself may be disappointing, all other components of the film are masterful. Taymor may be poor at handling some of the more challenging and emotional sections of the film, but nevertheless she keeps the whole movie alive visually. Surreal scenes in which Rivera suddenly transforms into King Kong are not exactly subtle, but nevertheless keep us engaged. Similarly, the early tram crash that cripples Kahlo for life is visually very striking.

It helps too that Elliot Goldenthal's score is so astonishing. The music is second to none and Goldenthal plays with the harmonies and pacing of Mexican music to wonderful effect. Another pair of my idols also pop up uncredited in the film. The two ingenious animators, Stephen and Timothy Quay are two of my favourite directors. Although they have only made two feature films to date (Institute Benjamin and the upcoming The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes) their short animated projects are shocking and clever. Their contribution to Frida therefore unsurprisingly, is one of the film's best assets. The two brothers animate a deliciously surreal puppet sequence that appears at the very beginning of the film, just after Kahlo's accident. Featuring a disturbing skeleton doctor with a liver for a tongue, the scene wonderfully captures Frida's sense of isolation and confusion following the incident that left her incapacitated for years.

So although Frida may be rather messy and confused it definitely has its moments. It's a great shame that the screenplay is so unfocused. With a better writer, (or maybe even not as many of them), the film could have truly soared. As it is, its definitely worth a watch, but maybe keep one finger on the fast-forward button.

The 2-disc edition of the film is literally packed with extras. Two commentaries (one from Taymor, one from Goldenthal) are available and both prove to be insightful and entertaining. Unfortunately some of the extras on the second disc are rather disappointing. One interview with Taymor is actually embarrassing, as the director snaps at the interviewer telling him that the screenplay 'was one of the best I've ever read.' Another rather disappointing extra is a short doco about Rodrigo Prieto. Fatally, the piece centres too much around Taymor (who is so arrogant she spends most of the time discussing why 'she' chose Prieto, not actually about the film's cinematography itself) and not around the far more eloquent and intelligent DoP. Amusingly enough Prieto doesn't seem to share Taymor's enthusiasm and even manages to poke a bit of fun at her here and there. Another strangely unsatisfying extra is a conversation between Hayek and Goldenthal about the film's music. Goldenthal unfortunately, appears very drunk and slurs his words terribly. Most of the answers he does give are muddled and confused and at times it appears as though he has no idea what he's actually talking about. Of course the shining gem in the package is an interview with the Brothers Quay, Stephen and Timothy. The pair do come off as more than a little weird, but what do you expect from brothers who repeatedly tell interviewers that they have a sly liking for geese and that one of them has an malnourished testicle. But despite their quirks, the two are funny and intelligent, and both manage to insult Taymor's behind the set narcissism with much more clarity than Hayek would ever even dare.

So in conclusion, just like the film the extras on the two disc DVD of Frida are messy and occasionally disappointing. Nevertheless the film is definitely worth a watch, if not only for the music and the animation. Although the film is a touch sloppy, its intentions are in the right place. It's got a heart, however messy it may be and isn't that what really matters?

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